The Mermaid

The June waves crept cold and soft and sudden in between my toes, drowning my blue nails in invisible salt and multi-colored wet sand.

I had never been so close to drowning before. My father had pulled me out just in time. The sea had had me in its dark, green and wicked gape until rainbow fish danced before my eyes. I laughed while coughing up the sea, babbling dreamily about the magical underworld and its mysterious and inviting shimmering lights. My mother told me to keep coughing and spitting and I did. She held me up and patted my back while I tried to get the feeling back in my legs. But they had grown weirdly soft. Like jelly. Like the sea.

The coming night, and many nights after, I dreamed vividly about the gold and pink zebra-skin of the sea, colors of sunlight and blue-green darkness permanently tattooed on my eyelids.

That was five years ago. In early June.

As the waves left my toes in puddles of hollowed out sand I didn’t know where to move. Bird-Clouds of migrating swallows banked in the sky and I imagined schools of fish doing the same out there. Under the blue blanket of wetness. But I had become afraid of the water. Its magic oozed into my forbidden dreams, rank with salt and silver.

For the first time in my life I had fallen through a portal into another world, a world whose rules I did not understand: an underworld of slowness and flying things maneuvering through shafts of unpredictable greenish light. I thought I was going to stay there forever. I don’t know if I had truly wanted to or not.

Later that summer I found a conch shell on the beach and my mother told me to put my ear to it. In it I could hear the song of the sea again. It became my one and only link to the world I had left behind. But I never went into the water again. Ever.

It was the first day of the school holidays and I was back on the summer island. It was the beginning of a new life. A life called summer. It was a short life, like a butterfly’s, but with endless days that seemed to contain so much more than ordinary days. So much growing up spread out, searching for the sweet nourishment of dreams.

My sisters spent the first days looking for summer boys, for among hundreds of holiday guests there was bounty the sisters had never seen before. Tanned giants and skinny surfers darted from beach to beach, their squawking tangled with the continuous rant of sea gulls. My uncle and aunt let us run free like sparrows, leaving the seduction of youth to run its course. I watched the sisters and the boys scattering on the cliffs like handfuls of berries tumbling to the sea after a fall. Their limbs long and sun kissed like the days. But my toes were always white and my fingertips were wrinkled and pink from the teeth marks of the hungry sea.

There was a storm that night and I was awakened by the blue-black roar of wind-whipped waves. The moon, halved by the shadowy summer night, shone icily and pale overhead. I pulled a white cotton dress, conveniently placed on the chair next to my bed, over my head and climbed out of the bedroom window I always kept open. There was no sign of any humans. I was alone, out of sight, and shadowless. Down by the dock my uncle’s boat danced wildly in the wind and pulled its moorings like a fish on hook. The island was blue and grey and lost in nostalgic reminiscence, solidly rooted in the world, it didn’t bother much about the sky’s rolling temper. It was a rainless wind. The sky was clear and warm. I walked barefoot down to the dock. It was a pillarless dock made of wood and it moved slightly back and forth. This is where I had fallen into the underworld five years ago. I could still see the portal, black and silvery and seductive. I bent over and tried to find my reflection in the chaos of the surface. There was a silhouette down there, moving rhythmically. But it didn’t look like mine. The face was blurry, but the hair seemed to be longer and the eyes, deeper set and perhaps it was just the moon, but they seemed to be shining as they looked straight into mine. And it was then I heard it. In the echo of the storm, notes that didn’t belong in the natural world: the slow keening of the sea.

Then, suddenly, the world ended. I don’t know if I let go or if I was pulled, I don’t remember feeling it happen. The furnished night disappeared with all its traditional smells and logic, and complete silence occurred. As though it had never been otherwise. Everything seem to fly into place as the loneliness of night was replaced by the unquestionable swirling of the mysterious patterns of the underworld. Time was suspended, and my body, from walking and running, took on the slow graciousness of a fish, bending and flickering like a speck of dust moving motionless from sun shaft to sun shaft. Pillars of curled seaweed bent to the current as my eyes went voyaging in the endless blue. A memory flickered in my mind. Of legs turning to jelly. Only it had never been jelly. My green and silver slippery skin curled like the seaweed and performed the dance every underwater creature knows. I moved effortlessly, and the expanse, with its crumbling non-existent walls, widened before me.

I let go and allowed the sea to take me. But I didn’t get far. Something had grabbed hold of me, had gotten its hook so deep into me that I couldn’t move. And I felt my breath stuck in my lungs, drinking the whole sea. I fought hard. But the hold on me just tightened. I was caught in someone’s net. The more I fought, the more I lost. Until I was hoisted out of the sea and tossed on to hard land. I blinked hard, trying to focus on this new world around me. And as it resettled in my mind, the patterns became familiar. Nothing had changed since that summer five years ago. And nothing had escaped. My eldest sister looked at me with horror. Not understanding what she had just done. Desperately trying to set the scene anew. I coughed and spat and the same came out of me. My jelly legs, reunited with hard ground, reformed and recoiled. My sister patted me on the back and draped her cardigan over my shoulders. A summer boy appeared behind her. He looked frightened and out of place. His brown chest was bare and his shoe lace undone. My sister pulled me after her, I wriggled in her brick grip, but gave up and let her lead me back to the house. The summer boy disappeared into the sunrise.

Later that summer my uncle taught me how to swim. After my sister told him about my little seaside escapade there was no mercy. Funnily enough I learned pretty fast. My uncle called me a natural.

Boat on land

Easter is for me stories. All kind of stories really, but mostly magical tales of ghosts and fantastical creatures. So I have given myself a challenge this easter, to write and share as many stories as I can. This is the first. I hope you will enjoy it.

By the willowed banks of a black lake, between a grove of old cashew nut trees and a thick bramble hedge, someone has pulled a boat on land. The green paint is scaling off the keel and white prickly splinters poke up from the dried up wooden surface of the stern. A name tag on the side of the boat reads: Memory. I should know, I put it there, and yet, I have never seen the boat anywhere but on land. It is not my boat.

I first noticed her on a rainy day in April. I know what you are going to say, there is no such thing as a mermaid, and you are probably right. I never really saw a fish tail. Just a girl with long black hair and a blue dress sitting on a rock beside the boat crying.

I was a student, just months away from graduation. Life seemed like a broad pathway with opening doors on each side, every door revealing some new and exciting opportunity. I loved walking, especially by any body of water. I took immense pleasure in the play of light on expanding ripples, willows swaying against the blue surface, and the quiet pathways with tiny round pebbles crunching under my feet. I walked by that particular lake often, breathing the scent of the wind beaten lake, sweet and fresh. It was always quiet. People prefer treadmills in front of TV’s to cold and humid nature, vulnerable to shifting weather, these days. But that particular day there was one exception: the girl in the blue dress.

When I first heard her crying I didn’t know what to think or do about the situation. Had she come here for privacy, should I just leave her alone? Or was it my own awkwardness around strangers that prevented me from approaching her?
“Oh, I am sorry, have I startled you?” It was the girl who spoke first. I apologized for sneaking up on her, slightly embarrassed, and turned around to leave. “It’s okay, you can come and sit with me if you like.” Her face looked so vulnerable and imploring I could not get myself to decline her offer, so I made my way through the netted brambles and sat down on a black slippery rock beside her. She smiled at me through her tears and I could see that she had green glassy eyes, like an exotic fish, I caught myself thinking, and pale gauze-like skin. She was beautiful in an ethereal way. ” I love coming here to see my boat.” She sighed and gave me a curious smile. ” He used to take me out rowing all the time, ” she continued. I assumed she was talking about a man now. ” That was when he was still in love with me. ” I nodded, feeling her loneliness deep within my own heart, like a hushed sea in a conch you’ve taken back to the city after a day on the beach. Faint, but still there if you really listen for it. Much like her story:

We met in a bar. I know, not very romantic, but that is what it was. He bought me a drink, and I accepted. He took me home with him afterwards, and I guess I just never left. Oh, those first days together were like in a fairy tale, filled with roses and talk of dreams and late night kisses. And of course the boat. He gave it to me one day by the lake. He knew how much I missed the sea. Every day that summer we went rowing. I sat at the rear with my bare feet in the lake, he lifted and lowered the oars into the water, it was like a dance, how the boat rose and fell into the water by the touch of those oars. He was red -headed with purple-green eyes. His skin was tanned and smooth. Water made him dreamy and still, even the rain, when it beat steadily on our bedroom window. He was the last thing I saw before closing my eyes to sleep, and the first thing I saw when I opened them. Sometimes I could swear I could smell the sea on his breath. Salty and wild. Gradually he took the place of the ocean in my heart.
But summer came to an end, and he had to go back to his office job. His bare feet were covered up in black leather shoes, and he cut his red hair short. Long days I spent alone. First I missed him, then I missed the sea. Our flat was far from the lake and even further from any seaside. But one day I defied the distance and walked on the gray cold concrete to our black still lake. I took off my shoes and dipped my bare feet into the cool colorless water. I sat like that for hours, until a hundred tiny fish came and nibbled at my red skin, irritated by the uncomfort of shoes. I let them remove the layers of my hardened skin, until the soft glow of the water was restored. I came back late that day, and my feet were tired. He scolded me, told me it was too far to walk by myself, and I begged him to take me out rowing again. “Tomorrow,” he said.
Tomorrow came and went, and more tomorrows came and went, but he said he was too busy.
I took to going to the lake every day, timing the journey so that I would return before him. The fish nibbled and restored my skin. For each hour I was in the water I became more and more at one with all that lived in it. I learned their ways. And they, I suspect, learned mine. I whispered my secrets to the deep dark blue. My breathing slowed, my movement slowed. The lake and its many creatures was never too busy to listen or to love me. I pretended to myself that I loved him more.
One day I again asked him to take me out rowing, but the same answer came, he was too busy. Something broke in me that day. When I dreamed back to those summer days I saw a different man, not the one standing in front of me. I missed that man. The man that smelled of the sea and made boats dance on water. He was gone, perhaps spirited away by the lake itself.
The next morning I went to the lake as usual, but this time I did not sit on my rock. I pushed the rowing boat gently off the bank and into the cold autumn water. I did not bother about the oars, I just dipped my feet into the lake like I had in those first days of summer, and let the current take me farther and farther away from land, from people and houses, roads and the shoes we must wear to walk on them. It started raining and I smiled. When the boat was as far from the banks as possible, I let myself glide into the water. It welcomed me with its silence and its softness. I was home. At last.

I don’t know what happened to the boat that day. But a year later I resurfaced and found it here, the same place it had always been: on land. I still miss him, but I was happy to return to my family, I guess my love for my home: the sea, was in the end stronger than my love for him.

As her story ended, she stopped crying and stared longingly at the old boat. I got up and stretched my legs, walking slowly over to the boat. Was it really her boat? Or was she just a sad lonely lost girl making up stories? When I turned around to look at her once more. She was gone. I never saw her again.

By the willowed banks of a black lake, between a grove of cashew nut trees and a thick bramble hedge, someone has pulled a boat on land. It is almost invisible against the greenery. No one ever comes here but me. I guess everyone is too busy to bother about the life of an old dried up rowing boat.